Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The End of Futility

The Cubs have won nine straight and, while it's early, they have the look of a championship team. I didn't include any Cubs in my MVP analysis from yesterday because, in my mind, they look a lot like those mid-to-late 90s Yankees teams in which multiple players are performing at a high level and no one is truly bad. That's not good for MVP purposes, but it's great for a team's championship prospects. Derek Lee is going to slump, but Aramis Ramirez will be there to pick him up. Geovany Soto will catch a foul tip or something, but Kosuke Fukudome will go on a tear. So many weapons right now. The right manager. Maybe a little bit of magic. If you put a gun to my head today and asked me who will win the World Series, I'd tell you to put the gun away because I don't need to be under duress to pick the Cubs.

I'm not alone in thinking this, of course, and the other day George Vecsey became the latest of many to muse about Chicago breaking their 100 year championship drought. That has and will continue to be played to death so I won't dwell on it. Instead, I'm in the mood to jump ahead and wonder about what the world will look like after the Cubs win a championship, whether it be this year or not.

A whole cottage industry has sprung up around historic futility. There were scores of Red Sox books about their championship drought. It became such a mature market that, after 2004, the whole apparatus successfully shifted to a "Thank God the Red Sox Finally Won" footing and is now transforming into a "Red Sox: Team of Dominance" thing. The Cubs' sorrow-fest has been smaller and later to market, but it has been picking up steam like crazy in the wake of the centennial.

If the Cubs win it all, however, will there be any team to take their place? Will any club's exploits inspire a generation of sportswriters to spin tales of haplessness, snakebite, and woe? I'm dubious that anyone can match the Cubs and Red Sox in this regard -- both because of the extreme merits of their futility and because of the size and history of their fan base -- but here are the candidates all the same:


Last Championship: 1948

Historic Futility: Recent respectability notwithstanding, pretty damn high.

Near-Term Championship Prospects: Good, assuming they can pick up a bat or two.

Analysis: The sheer number of years since winning it all isn't dispositive in the futility analysis. Just ask the Red Sox who, despite having a ten-year shorter drought than Chicago, were able to milk much more sympathy out of it until 2004. That said, if the Cubs win the championship, Cleveland will have both the longest and probably the most pathetic stretch of championship-free baseball. There was a reason the movie Major League was set in Cleveland, and it wasn't because of tax breaks from the Ohio Film Office. Bonus for the Indians: they share a long-downtrodden city with two other historically snake bitten franchises in the Browns and Cavs, and all of that works together nicely when trying to frame a profile in sad sackery.


Last Championship: 1954

Historic Futility: Low. They've won more games than any franchise in baseball history, for crying out loud. And that's not solely a function of longevity: the Jints have five World Series titles and 20 pennants to their credit.

Near-Term Championship Prospects: Extraordinarily low, and will remain so as long as Brian Sabean remains at the helm, but that's fodder for another post.

Analysis: 54 years may be a lot, but no one is ever going to rally around the Giants as lovable losers. Too much winning has happened. Too many great players have passed through the clubhouse. Barring a cataclysmic earthquake or the outlawing of wireless Internet service, there is no possibility that the team's futility can be matched with some parallel storyline of the adversity faced by the team's home city. They need another 50 years or so to even make the conversation.


Last Championship: Never (team began play in 1962)

Historic Futility: Low. They've been to the playoffs nine times and have never lost 100 games.

Near-Term Championship Prospects: Pretty low. Their best players all over 30, and I'm not aware of any wave of young talent on the horizon.

Analysis: People don't think often about the Astros, but when they do, they tend not to think of them as losers. Since the early 70s, they've always at least pretended to be contending or on the verge of it, and when they have been truly bad, it hasn't lasted long.


Last Championship: Never (team began play in 1969)

Historic Futility: Moderate. They've had 13 years over .500 and look to be on their way to a 14th. That's not too bad for an expansion team.

Near-Term Championship Prospects: Better than most teams can say. They have good young players. Give them an arm or two and they could easily win a championship in the next couple of years.

Analysis: There is a defined stretch of play that the Brewers can honestly refer to as their glory years (late 70s to early 90s), and that has to count for something in this kind of analysis.


Last Championship: Never (team began play in 1969)

Historic Futility: Moderate. Their lows have been lower than Milwaukee's and Houston's, but they do have 14 seasons at .500 or higher and a couple of pennants under their belt.

Near-Term Championship Prospects: It was thought to be high until the shooting started this year. They've got some decent young talent and a front office with a modicum of a clue, but man, it certainly went downhill fast this year, didn't it?

Analysis: San Diego has alternated between truly bad and respectable throughout its history. Like San Francisco, however, given where they play, I'm having a hard time featuring anyone getting all dramatic about the Padres woes. Sure, they may lose 100 games, but at the end of the day they can go out and eat fish tacos while watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. That's not the best backdrop upon which to properly project truly historic futility.


Last Championship: Never (team began play in either 1961 or 1972, depending on whether you count the new Senators era)

Historic Futility: Pretty high. Three relatively recent division titles help Rangers' fans feel better about things, but they have only won as many as 90 games three times in their history.

Near-Term Championship Prospects: I suppose they could catch some run-bashing lightning in a bottle with Hamilton, Young, Kinsler, and Bradley, but they really don't have the pitching, and those guys are all going to be too old once they get some (if they ever do).

Analysis: The Rangers' story would be a lot more compelling if (a) they had decided to embrace the Washington Senators' legacy from the outset; and (b) they didn't play in football country. In light of those things, however, they'd have to string together many 100 loss seasons -- or a series of near-misses -- before anybody decided to romanticize their futility.


Last Championship: Never (team began play in 1977)

Historic Futility: High. Seattle didn't have a winning season in its first fourteen years, and didn't make the playoffs until year nineteen. Despite strong play in the mid-to-late 90s, those teams are more remembered for squandering an outrageous amount of talent than they are for winning a couple of division crowns.

Near-Term Championship Prospects: Low. There was some unwarranted optimism recently, but this is an old team, with only one or two guys who are likely to play for the next contending Mariners squad.

Analysis: As a relatively new team it will take more time, of course, but the Mariners are an excellent candidate for becoming folk losers. And it could go either way, really: they could lose and lose for 100 years and become Cubs-style sad sacks. Or, in light of all of those missed opportunities of the Griffey-Rodriguez-Martinez-Johnson years, they could come close to a couple of championships and lose and become the next Boston Red Sox. The Indians are still my favorites, of course, but if they manage to get a trophy sometime soon, Seattle is my dark horse candidate.


Last Championship: 1979

Historic Futility: Not as high as you might think. Yes, they've been pathetic for about 15 years now, but with the exception of a couple of years in the mid-80s, the Pirates were consistently good -- and often great -- between the time Danny Murtaugh took over in 1958 and the time Barry Bonds left in 1993.

Near-Term Championship Prospects: Pretty low, but with a new, progressive front office in place things may, at long last, be looking up.

Analysis: It's been a rough road for a long time, but the Pirates have won seven division titles and three World Championships in the living memory of the Baby Boomers, and that's not going to get anybody writing books about your futility.


No team that has won a championship since 1990 has a legitimate claim. There are seven teams whose last championship came in the 80s: the Phillies, Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Mets, Dodgers, and A's. While the Royals stick out in that group as the team with the greatest claim to sympathetic loserdom, anybody above the age of 30 or so still vividly recalls them being considered the class of the American League. For my part, no matter how many times I see them lose, I still think of George Brett, Hal McRae, Dan Quisenberry, and Willie Wilson, so I can't yet come around to giving them the Cubs treatment.

UPDATE: Commenter Rob noted that it wouldn't be a good idea to underestimate the Phillies. I think he's right. 1980 and a couple of pieces of secondary hardware since notwithstanding, I think they may have the best claim, eventually anyway, to this crown. Philadelphians are a passionate people, prone to overreacting and pessimism. They're good right now, but that other stuff, combined with the 10,000 loss thing and the historic run of awfulness between the 1920s and the 1950s, may shoot them up the list fast if and when they experience a moderate stretch of bad play.


The Indians are the clear crown princes of futility, standing ready for their coronation should the Cubs finally put it all together this year. And there really isn't a close second. Seattle is very green as far as these things go, but they're my Prince Henry. After that we're left with a lot of unsatisfying choices, but I suppose either Texas or San Diego will do its best to fill the role. Ultimately, though, I feel that we're nearing the end of an era. There will never be another insane phenomenon like the self-flagellation of Red Sox fans, and I'd be shocked if a team ever went 100 years without a championship again.

Sadly, I will probably see the end of the lovable loser meme in my lifetime. Hopefully it holds out until I can land my first book contract.

Being the complete idiot I am, I forgot to include the Nats! Let's fix that:


Last Championship: Never (team began play in, well, that's complicated; see below)

Historic Futility: High, but again, see below.

Near-Term Championship Prospects: Well, on the one side we have slim, and the other hand we have none. Given their team-building plan, however, I suspect that the only chance they have is if the Reds win a championship and start casting off really, really good players, thereby allowing Jim Bowden to snap them up.

Analysis: The team's choice to turn its back on the history of the Expos is pretty sad, so I will not allow them to count Montreal's history for these purposes. If they did, though? Montreal had its highs: four 90-win seasons and one more that could have been 100 wins and a championship given how they were playing when the strike hit. But it also had its lows: seasons with 107 and 110 losses, many other seasons in which the team were basically dead men walking, even if they overachieved a bit.

Ultimately, though, they don't rate highly in the historic futility race, because unlike Chicago, Boston, and even Cleveland, they simply didn't have a fan base that would support them through the bad times. Yes, I know that there is this whole meme out there about how much Montreal loved its Expos and would have continued to do so had it not been for the evil Jeff Loria, but I'm not really buying it. Montreal fans were like the fans of a lot of teams: they showed up when the team was good, they didn't when the team was bad, and they never really lived or died either way. That, to me, isn't the stuff of legendary futility. That's just futility.


Scott said...

Why don't the Nationals make this list? They didn't even get in the "Others" section. In 1924 the Washington Nationals won the World Series and it hasn't happened since. Doesn't a 35 year stretch of having no team just add to the futility factor? You can't get much more futile than that. I see no reason for it to be a disqualification. We spit on the Indians and their 60 year drought. They have at least seen the postseason. We have Ted Williams in 1968 making everyone a decent hitter for a year, and that's it.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Ah! Oversight on my part. I had even mentally composed it, but forgot to write it.

Come back in ten minutes. It will be up there.

Rob said...

There will always be some team fitting the role of the loveable loser. The Cubs have it now, but it wasn't so long ago that the Mets were the loveablest losers in the land.

And don't undersell the Phillies, either. They may have taken out the Metropolitans last season, but 10,000 loses is nothing to sneeze at.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Good point, Rob. I just updated the post to reflect that. If it weren't for 1980, they'd be the runaway winners and it wouldn't even be close. If people had cared about this kind of thing before Shaughnessy wrote that Curse book, we may have been talking about the Phillies all of this time anyway.

Anonymous said...

Craig, rob beat me to my point by 20 minutes, but the Phillies need to score high, because of the fact that they have had FIVE trips to the world series in over 120 years or something. Seriously. That's rediculous. To be fair, 3 have come in the last 28 years, but still. They have been just as irrelevant as the Cubs for longer over that 100 year stretch. Somehow, the Cubs and their fans got "Loveable Losers" while the Phils and their fans just get "Losers." Also, take a look at the Phils stats for the '30s, or '40s, or, maybe the '60s, later part of the '80s, later part of the '90s, don't forget the '30s, or '50s, or early part of the '70s . . . Ugh.

Richard Dansky said...

Unfortunately, any discussion of the Phillies as historic losers will immediately get hijacked by some moron shouting "And they threw snowballs at Santa Claus!"

That is the sum and total of the Philadelphia sports legacy, forever and ever, amen.

Anonymous said...

"Major League" was filmed in Wisconsin, not Ohio.